New York had grown into a major city, with common urban problems: insufficient transportation, serious pollution, poor sanitation systems, and people crowded into unfit living conditions. The city government was overwhelmed by the need.
One politician provided these services for personal power and gain. William Magear “Boss” Tweed became one of the leading politicians in New York City, and one of the most corrupt.
Tweed made political allies, who selected him to head the city’s political machine, Tammany Hall. This organization controlled the Democratic Party and most of the votes.
Tweed won a great deal of local autonomy and control. The state legislature granted New York City a new charter that moved power over local political offices and appointments from the state to local officials. It was called the “Tweed Charter” because Tweed had paid large bribes for the charter to pass.
Tweed handed out jobs and lucrative contracts in return for favors and bribes. Money was paid to judges for favorable rulings. Contracts for massive building projects such as hospitals, museums, and bridges were padded, and the kickbacks were sent to Boss Tweed and his machine. The Tweed ring bought large tracts of city real estate, owned the printing company that contracted for official city business such as ballots, and received large payoffs from railroads.
The corruption in New York City’s government diminished the rule of law and harmed civil society. Most people in local government received their jobs because of patronage. The Tweed Ring manipulated elections by hiring people to vote multiple times, stuffing ballot boxes with fake votes, and bribing election inspectors. Tammany candidates often used intimidation and street violence to influence voters.
Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall helped the needy in New York City. The Tweed Ring provided basic services for the price of a vote. Tweed gave jobs, housing, food, medical care, and even coal money to heat their apartments. He contributed millions of dollars to neighborhood churches and synagogues, Catholic schools, hospitals, and charities. Immigrants in New York were grateful for these services, giving overwhelming support of the Tweed Ring by voting for local Democratic officials.
The New York Times exposed the Tweed machine’s corruption. Editorial cartoons by Thomas Nast in the magazine Harper’s Weekly criticized the illegal activities of the Tweed Ring. Tweed was most concerned about the cartoons, because many of his supporters were illiterate but understood the cartoon messages. He offered bribes to the New York Times and to Nast to stop their public criticisms, but neither accepted.
After being arrested in 1871, Boss Tweed was found guilty of more than 200 crimes, including forgery and theft. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Tweed managed to escape jail, making his way to Spain. The Spanish police used Nast’s cartoons to identify and arrest Tweed. He died in a U.S. jail in 1878.
Source: William “Boss” Tweed and Political Machines
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